In media, in criminal law, and in popular culture, Manson created a template that, for better or worse, is still familiar today.
The trial of O. J. Simpson took place in the charmless Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building, on West Temple Street, in 1995. When court broke for the day, those of us who covered the trial would walk out the front door and stare at the empty hulk across the street—the Hall of Justice, which had been built in 1925 but was damaged in an earthquake, and stood unoccupied and abandoned. Still, in some way, we knew that our work had been invented in that crumbling structure, because that’s where the trial of Charles Manson took place.
Manson died on Sunday—remarkably, he was eighty-three years old. His era had long passed by the time of his death, but his legacy was surprisingly durable. In media, in criminal law, and in popular culture, Manson created a template that, for better or worse, is still familiar today.
Manson’s name is virtually synonymous with mass murder, so for people who are only vaguely aware of his story it often comes as a surprise to learn that he never killed anyone. In the late nineteen-sixties, he was the leader of a cult called the Family—the trial ushered in the wide use of the term “cult,” to note one example of Manson’s broad influence. Based on a ranch in the desert outside Los Angeles, Manson exercised mesmerizing power over a small band of followers. On the night of August 8, 1969, Charles (Tex) Watson and three women, acting on Manson’s direction, went to the Hollywood Hills home of Sharon Tate, an actress who was eight and a half months pregnant, and slaughtered her and four of her friends. Two nights later, at a house in a different Los Angeles neighborhood, the same quartet, this time joined by two more Family members and Manson, killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. (Manson left before the murders were committed.)
Manson and his followers were arrested some weeks later (on suspicion of stealing cars), and it took some time not only for police to connect them to the murders but even for the two sets of killings to be linked to each other. Manson’s trial in the Tate case began in June, 1970. The case was a media spectacle; although cameras were not allowed in courtrooms at that time, it helped create the demand for them. Manson had a dark charisma, and he enjoyed the attention. The trial was such a sensation that President Richard Nixon pronounced Manson guilty before the jury had gone out; the judge declined a request for a mistrial. (This anticipated President Donald Trump’s public condemnation of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, before his court martial for desertion was over.)
But it was really in the aftermath of the trial that the case, and Manson himself, became fixed in the public imagination. Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor, wrote an account of it, called “Helter Skelter,”after the Beatles song that Manson said had served as his inspiration. The book helped create the true-crime genre, which remains a publishing institution.
The Manson “Family” both anticipated and inspired the growth of sinister cults in American life, especially in California. In the decade that followed the Manson murders, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst, in Berkeley, and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, in San Francisco, transfixed supporters, more than nine hundred of whom committed mass suicide in Guyana. Before Manson, it was more or less a given that criminals chose to associate with one another in gangs or in crime families. But Manson told the world that people became criminals through the influence of others as well. Our fascination with Stockholm syndrome and brainwashing owes much to what the world saw in the Manson case.
The Hall of Justice reopened a few years ago, after a thorough renovation. Many who practice in its courtrooms today were not even born when Manson stood trial. But, whether they know it or not, the lawyers there, and the journalists who follow them, are working in the long shadow of the man who just died.
~Jeffrey Toobin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1993 and the senior legal analyst for CNN since 2002.